Why inspections are too simplistic
Chris Hughes told delegates at the Northern Ireland Learning and Skills Development Agency that the inspection system needs to be more sophisticated and take account of the benefits for the wider economy, rather than focusing too heavily on teaching and management within institutions.
He said national inspection bodies are taken for granted in the UK but many countries do not have the equivalent of Ofsted or the Ulster inspectorate .
People assumed that institutions such as Ofsted or awarding bodies like OCR and Edexcel were necessary. Yet, he said: "There are millions of people all over the world leading happy and fulfilled lives without awarding bodies."
His comments, made to a UK-wide audience in Belfast last week, follow the publication of his report on the future of post-16 education in Northern Ireland, which is about to see its 16 FE colleges merge into six.
The province's Department for Education and Learning has welcomed the report, Purpose, performance and public value, which makes recommendations about how quality can be maintained among the province's colleges and other training organisations.
The report says training organisations have identified the education system's "lack of focus" on the economic development of Northern Ireland, despite the DEL's insistence that post-16 education is crucial to maintaining the growth expected as a result of the peace process.
All quality assurance - whether or not it involves inspection - should examine the social and economic impact of what happens in the classroom, Mr Hughes argues.
He recommends setting targets on training specifically aimed at meeting employers' needs, customer satisfaction surveys, and a three-year plan for continuously improving quality.
His report says the Association of Northern Ireland Colleges should work to promote the reputation of the FE "brand" after the formation of the six merged colleges.
Mr Hughes is the former chief executive of the English Learning and Skills Development agency, which recently split into two organisations - the Learning and Skills Network and the Quality Improvement Agency. Its Northern Irish equivalent remains a single organisation.